It really hits you when you read a signboard that says—“this area is an unconfirmed mine-detached region where a person could get killed instantly”.
The ‘get killed’ is in a red font, in case the message wasn’t clear enough. Obviously, the soldiers will not let you step out of the bus either, but your imagination immediately transforms the forested surroundings into, say, a pit of lava. Or worse, what it actually is—one of the many strips of land surrounding the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) sowed with active landmines. (Though, lately, there have been consolidated efforts to their removal.)
However, my description is a disservice to the place. Sure, it is shrouded by the obvious drama associated with the 4km-wide 250km-long buffer zone that has been a major focus of geopolitics since the 1950s—but most of it is in our heads. There were uncountable tourist groups, military buses (with soldiers on the lookout) to ferry us from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, and certainly no risk of being blown to pieces by a concealed explosive device.
But boy, was I thrilled to be there: skirting the infamous borders that separate North Korea from South Korea, arena to plenty of skirmishes and climactic to inspiring stories of defection. The excitement peaked when I reached the entry-point to the Third Tunnel of Aggression, after a military bus ride from the tourist bus parking.
Back in 1978, the North Koreans began digging a tunnel 1.2km from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL; lies in the centre of the DMZ) till it pierced through the line and then 435m into South Korea. Located 73m below the surface, this was the third such incursion tunnel. Luckily, it was intercepted well in time. A small train allows visitors to access the place.
Once I was seated and buckled up, the locomotive slowly made its way down a shaft. Since I faced the opening, I watched the sunlight disappear and the tunnel lights take its place. The temperature fell steadily—as if the sudden arrival of winter—and, soon enough, I was at the mouth of the arched tunnel that led to the MDL. From here, wearing a yellow helmet, I made my way across the two-metre-tall passage. About 235m in, I arrived at a wall with a glass window that gave me a view of the tunnel that lay beyond. However, it was still 200m from the line. So while I cannot say I’d stepped into North Korean territory, I did come within striking distance of a passage that could have allowed thirty thousand enemy soldiers to pass through within an hour, had it not been discovered.
Back on the surface, I made my way to the Dora Observatory. Named after the mountain on which it is situated (Mount Dora), it literally gave me a glimpse of North Korea. I may have had to rely a bit on my imagination for the tunnel, but the observatory was a flat-out revelation. KijÅÂngdong, the North Korean ‘Peace Village’, lay below the hill at a distance, a cityscape that seemed motionless except for the flights of birds. Even now, North Korea couldn’t shake off its enigma, as the village seemed desolate, reminding me of the South Korean claim that this is an uninhabited ‘Propaganda Village’, meant to attraction defectors, and to give a sense of grandeur—be it the many low-rise and high-rise buildings, colourful rooftops, towers, and other appealing elements. Whether it was a Potemkin village or not, I was certainly charmed. Clearly, this was effective propoganda.
The final DMZ experience also turned out to be my favourite. It was the visit to Dorasan Station, which was opened in 2002 after the North–South Joint Declaration in 2000, meant to connect both the Koreas by railroad. Neat, modern, and ‘not the last station from the South’, but ‘the first station towards the North’, I bought plenty of souvenirs here: tickets, KORAIL stamps that mentions the station’s distance from Pyongyang (the North Korean capital, 205km away) and Seoul (56km away). I also bought one of the 150,625 pieces of barbed wire removed from the DMZ fence in 2000 as a memento of peace, which was featured in the Oct ’18 issue of Outlook Traveller (p.18, ‘Wire on the Wall‘). Indeed, what I loved the most about the place was this call to peace, best reflected in a message displayed at the station—“when the Trans–Korea Railway (TKR), the Trans–Siberia Railway (TSR), and the Trans-China–Railway (TCR) are connected in the future, Dorasan Station promises to emerge as the starting point of the transcontinental railroad.” And a new chapter in history too, I am sure…